When we were kids, my Mom used to quote a saying from her own mother: “No tienes vela en este entierro,” which she translated as “You have no candle in this funeral procession.” In Puerto Rico and other Spanish-speaking countries, it’s a morbidly poetic way to tell someone, “Mind your own business.”
The message was lost on me because I would start envisioning the whole funeral procession scenario: a remote mountain village, mourners on a winding path toward the cemetery. The family members of the deceased distributed the candles, and if someone handed you one, it meant, Come along, you’re one of us, you’re in the inner circle.
If you didn’t get a candle, it meant, You don’t belong.
God knows women have been hearing that message for a long time. We don’t belong in the halls of power, the boardrooms, the banks, the legislatures, the pulpits. We’re not the scholars, the philosophers, the heroes, the explorers. We’re the painter’s model, not the artist. The writer’s muse, not the author.
Things may have changed. But not enough.
Leaving aside the boardrooms and the pulpits, let’s look at the publishing industry. In the area of so-called serious literature (the stuff that gets respectful reviews, prestigious awards, a place on college syllabi), women are still woefully underrepresented among the ranks of published authors.
The dismal statistics are easy to find these days, thanks to the organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Take a look at VIDA’s pie charts showing the percentages of women authors published in literary magazines, the percentages of women authors whose books are reviewed. There’s a range, of course, but it’s mostly between a quarter and a third. And in a 2011 article in The New Republic, Ruth Franklin examined the gender ratio in non-genre categories among book publishers. The percentages were staggering:
We looked at fall 2010 catalogs from 13 publishing houses, big and small. Discarding the books that were unlikely to get reviewed—self-help, cooking, art—we tallied up how many were by men and how many were by women. Only one of the houses we investigated—the boutique Penguin imprint Riverhead—came close to parity, with 55 percent of its books by men and 45 percent by women. Random House came in second, with 37 percent by women. It was downhill from there, with three publishers scoring around 30 percent—Norton, Little Brown, and Harper—and the rest 25 percent and below, including the elite literary houses Knopf (23 percent) and FSG (21 percent). Harvard University Press, the sole academic press we considered, came in at just 15 percent. I speculated that independents—more iconoclastic, publishing more work in translation, and perhaps less focused on the bottom line—would turn out to be more equitable than the big commercial houses. Boy, was I wrong. Granted, these presses publish a smaller number of books in total, so a difference in one or two books has a larger effect on their percentages. Still, their numbers are dismaying. Graywolf, with 25 percent female authors, was our highest-scoring independent. The cutting-edge Brooklyn publisher Melville House came in at 20 percent. The doggedly leftist house Verso was second-to-last at 11 percent. Our lowest scorer? It pains me to say it, because Dalkey Archive Press publishes some great books that are ignored by the mainstream houses. But it would be nice if more than 10 percent of them were by women.
I noticed this same trend in 2012 as I started researching publishers who might be interested in my novel manuscript. Time after time I would look at the “new and forthcoming” sections of reputable small, independent presses, and see only one female author out of eight, or one out of ten. Sometimes a publisher’s entire “new and forthcoming” list was male.
There are lots of good articles being written about this trend. People are suggesting that if you want to do something about it, you can start by reading more books by women authors, suggesting books by women authors to your book group, writing brief reviews on Amazon or GoodReads if you’ve genuinely liked a book by a woman author.
I myself have decided to start a book reviewing collective, with like-minded feminist writer friends. We’ll be writing reviews of work by women authors, particularly those from the non-mainstream presses. Whenever a member gets a review published somewhere, we’ll post a link to that review here.
We’re busy people. We have jobs, commitments, not a lot of time for new projects. Some of us (me included) have very little experience writing book reviews. But we’re committed to making a contribution, however modest in scale, to solving an enormous problem.
What do we hope to achieve by this? We hope that the reviews we write will help deserving women authors get more attention than they would otherwise have. We hope other writers form similar reviewing collectives, or make individual commitments to reviewing books by women. We hope book publishers become more critical of their own practices, their own assumptions about what makes writing “good,” “important,” “serious,” “publishable.” We hope women’s voices get more chances to be heard.
Call it what you will: a foot in the door, a place at the table.
Kindred spirits, this is your business. Here’s a candle. Come along.
–Rosalie Morales Kearns
February 8, 2013